Plato’s Cave, American Edition
Plato’s cave is a place where people sit chained seeing the shadows cast on the wall by a fire and thinking that that is reality. Escaping the cave requires a rough ascent into sunlight to experience reality as it is. A weird and troubling phenomenon is taking place in the political battles surrounding Donald Trump’s Presidency that will reverberate beyond this embattled term, as it sets a new low of public discourse which future political leaders and scandalmongers will find it easier to match. While there is a necessity for strategic ambiguity in politics, it has become impossible to distinguish reality from theater, especially since the media has decided to become a player and not an arbiter. Many factors contribute, all of which can be likened to a process of erosion – of standards in journalism, of personal conduct in the use of privileged information or of evidentiary standards. A cacophonous noise drowns out reasonable and civil debate, as the most unlikely sources bring convenient gossip which is enthroned as truth. Constant churn of their points in the media digestive tract, resembling a game of “Chinese whispers” (“telefonul fără fir” for our Romanian readers), strip out important details and replace skepticism with certainty. In the most convenient age for leaks, the media is willing to take the word of an anonymous source reading from a supposed internal memo over the phone, instead of a scan or a photograph. Sources based on hearsay from other third hand accounts are immediately whitewashed into certainty, producing real effects on markets and the public before an inquiry has even had the chance to request actual records. Truth or falsity, as determined by an objective process, are rendered irrelevant, since the inflammation is an objective in itself which will have been reached before any sort of confirmation is achieved. One can then print a mealy-mouthed retraction at the bottom of a back page, expressing less of a “mea culpa” and more of a shrug saying “honest mistake”. The constant repetition of assertion without evidence has even managed to break the back of the bull market in the US that has picked up steam since Donald Trump’s election, though even that was based on irrational exuberance instead of the performance of economic fundamentals. The change in the pattern of financing for the media, reliant on online ads, incentivizing “clickbait” journalism, is as much to blame as actual political bias and the concentration of 90% of US media in 6 companies, down from 50 in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the “flummoxed citizen”, as Romanian playwright I. L. Caragiale described him, is the real loser. Timur Kuran’s “falsification of preferences” is inevitable in such a milieu, as is the degradation of the democratic political process. The historical lows of trust in the media and the rise of cynicism are a reaction to this, but they are hardly a solution as much as a survival strategy (or a sanity maintenance strategy), since Western institutions depend on trust to function properly. Destroying something is easy, building it is hard, and nothing is harder to build than healthy social convention and political norms. Without them, formal institutions become hollow. We shall see what remains when the dust settles, but the phrase that comes to mind is the infamous Vietnam-era pearl of wisdom “we had to destroy the village to save it”.